Tessa Gratton’s new novellas in her United States of Asgard fantasy series tackle queer identity and race head on.
By Tessa Gratton
All my books are about politics. If you write about people engaging with their world, so are yours.
I joke about being the person you shouldn’t invite to dinner because all I do is talk about religion and politics, but that’s because on some fundamental level I believe there’s nothing else to talk about. Politics is how we govern ourselves; personally, within our families, communities, nationally. Every action we take has political ramifications: not just who we kiss, who we indict, who we elect, but also where we shop, whether we rent or buy, what we major in, whether we go to school at all, who we call when we need help, how we die.
But Tessa, how is where I shop political? Well, every decision from why a specific site was chosen for a specific store to where that store sources its potatoes is a political one. What communities have nice grocery stores and what communities have tiny convenience stores? Who has access to farmers markets, who has access to fast food? Who bags your groceries? Which workers have health insurance? What meat packing plant provides those chickens and did they cut off their beaks? Who can afford to buy organic? Maybe you think about all these things, maybe you just run in for a basket of strawberries (who harvested those strawberries?), but regardless of your conscious participation, there are political consequences to where/how/when you get your food and where that money goes.
Everything is politics.
That’s especially true for the books we read and the stories we tell.
Back when I was in grad school, trying to learn how to fix the world through feminism and activism, I was so frustrated with American politics that I quit school. I didn’t believe anymore that I could make anything better through academics or in policy or government. What other way could I try to make the world a better place for everybody? How could I even begin?
I realized it was books that changed me more than anything else on its own. They helped me understand my world and helped me see other human beings — especially humans different than myself. That’s what I wanted — and still want — to do. There are many reasons to write stories and probably all of them are valid ones. Mine is ambitious: I want to change the world.
That’s why I created The United States of Asgard, the world that’s introduced in my novel The Lost Sun. The USAsgard is this giant metaphor for American culture that lets me talk about stuff in ways I couldn’t if I was just writing about USA as it is instead of an alternate version founded by Vikings and their gods. It’s an America where the warrior culture is front-and-center, where politics and religion are overtly determined by violence and money and living gods. It’s full of larger-than-life characters I can use to play out stories that center around those “taboo” topics that I’m so desperate to come to your house and talk to you about over dinner.
Sometimes I start writing a book because of an image or “what if” question, sometimes I start with a character’s conflict. But to be honest, the idea that became the novella Gold Runner started with a political agenda.
I originally imaged the USAsgard series as five books, each one about a teenaged narrator involved intimately with one of the major gods and what that god stands for. The gods were: Baldur, Odin, Thor, Loki, and Freya.
Baldur’s book (The Lost Sun) is about a boy learning what to believe in when his friends, family, society, nation, tell him he is not deserving of life, trust, love. It’s about being an outcast and finding hope. Odin’s book (The Strange Maid) is about a girl taking ambition and power into her own hands despite teen girls not being supposed to want or care for those things. Freya’s book (The Apple Throne, coming in April 2015) is about a girl taking the power to shape destiny out of the hands of authority and making that power her own. Loki’s book is a novella now, Lady Berserk, and is less about Loki and more about a young girl discovering she loves herself because of the dragon in her heart, not despite it.
I always knew, even when the books were hard or revision was killing me, that those were the core issues I needed to discuss with regards to those themes/gods and American politics/society.
But Thor was always difficult because I thought he was boring. In the Norse mythology, Thor represents family, family values, strength and loyalty and protection. I prefer the gods of war and poetry and sacrifice and sex. Then I realized Thor also tends to be the butt of sexual and gendered jokes. One time he’s forced to dress up like the goddess Freya and marry a giant in order to get his hammer back (seriously) and this other time he’s defeated by a giantess who basically drowns him with her menstrual blood (SERIOUSLY).
It finally, finally dawned on me that I needed to confront Thor head on in every possible way.
Though there’s a lot of world building in the United States of Asgard series that reveals some of the ways that queer identities and communities exist in the USAsgard (especially through that most gender-fluid of gods Loki and his followers) none of the three novels is narrated by an explicitly queer character. Signy of The Strange Maid would probably argue otherwise on her own behalf, but it’s not part of her story or self-identity.
I wanted to write a story in this world narrated by a queer person. Wouldn’t Thor hate that.
So that’s where I very purposefully and politically started Gold Runner. A thematic place of confrontation: confrontation with all the traditional values Thor represents. In the USAsgard (and the USA) those values are very white and very straight.
Amon, Thor’s son, is Black (or rather, Amon is the social, political, racial USAsgard equivalent of being Black in America). The world looks at Amon and sees the lightning eyes he inherited from his father in the dark face of his Black human mother — a constant reminder that Amon is not Thor’s son by his goddess wife or even by a mortal woman who looks like the elite, white Asgardian society. Amon literally embodies — through no doing or consent of his own — political conflict.
But he’s aware of that conflict playing out on and in him. It’s part of why he’s struggling with whether or not he’s bisexual (spoiler: he totally is). He’s the son of the straightest, most overtly heterosexual god in New Asgard, and was raised to be suspicious of the gender-fluidity of the Lokiskin or the so-called “rampant homosexuality” in Odinist ranks. Despite his other rebellions, this one hits him uncomfortably close to the heart of what he resents so much about Thor: the god’s sexual hypocrisy. He can’t forget he’s the son of family values, the son of a god of loyalty who regularly has affairs with women not his wife. And Amon knows that if he acts on his desires it will bring a whole new level of political and personal trouble down on him.
I knew all of that before I even began to find a story for Amon to tell. Turns out it’s a wild tale of stolen elf gold and shape-shifting and kissing. (My stories are always also about kissing.) (Kissing is my favorite politics.)
All books are political, and the act of writing is political, but it’s easy to forget that, or to pretend otherwise if you’re privileged enough. I choose again and again every day to not forget, to not pretend. It’s hard thinking about politics constantly and not shying away from hard choices. I’ve made good ones and bad ones, and sometimes those bad ones horrify me when I realize it later. Sometimes I catch myself being afraid or lazy, and I hope I haven’t let too many such moments slip past my notice. All I know is that in order to write the kind of story that has even the slightest chance of connecting to readers in the complicated, political, meaningful way I want to, I have to keep honestly trying.
Tessa Gratton has wanted to be a paleontologist or a wizard since she was seven. Alas, she turned out too impatient to hunt dinosaurs, but is still searching for a someone to teach her magic. After traveling the world with her military family, she acquired a BA (and the important parts of an MA) in Gender Studies, then settled down in Kansas with her partner, her cats, and her mutant dog. She now spends her days staring at the sky and telling stories about monsters, magic, and teenagers. Visit her at tessagratton.com, @tessagratton, tessagratton.tumblr.com.
Gold Runner is now available. All three United States of Asgard novellas are also available as a compilation, The Weight of Stars.